It is hard not to be inspired by the crowds of young "Umbrella Revolution" protesters shutting down Hong Kong. They are committed to basic principles of democracy, they are challenging an authoritarian regime, they are civil and non-violent, they are articulate and educated.
It's also hard not to be terrified. The last time this many people took to the streets of a major Chinese city demanding democracy, in 1989 in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the result was the bloody massacre that killed hundreds and destroyed any hope of national democracy in China. It's fair to say that China's current ruling regime has based its ruling ideology on the reversal, and complete silencing, of Tiananmen.
When we watch Hong Kong, aren't we just watching the heartbreakingly hopeful moment before the tanks roll in and the horrors begin?
Perhaps. But there are reasons to temper this terror. What is happening in Hong Kong does not have to be another Tiananmen Square, for three important reasons.
1. They're not seeking full democracy.
Hong Kong's protesters are not seeking multiparty democracy at the national level – the objective in Tiananmen Square – or even really at the city-state level. They aren't challenging the Communist Party of China's authortarian rule. What they want is a reversal of Beijing's decision to allow an elite committee of Beijing-appointed Communist Party officials to select the candidates for the city's first "fully democratic" election of its mayor (technically known as the President of the Legislative Council), to be held in 2017. Essentially, Hong Kongers have been given a choice of universal suffrage under restricted conditions, or no universal suffrage at all. They're protesting against that choice.
Hong Kong's lack of municipal democracy isn't a communist imposition, it's a British legacy. During the 99 years Britain ran Hong Kong (which it won as a victory spoil in the Opium Wars), it appointed the city's leaders in London. When that lease ended in 1997, Beijing promised that it would allow "one country, two systems" and that Hong Kong's distinct system would be based on "universal suffrage." That promise almost immediately became bogged down in negotiations between Hong Kong democrats and Beijing-supporting authoritarians over its meaning and details, which have continued to this day.
Hong Kong does have some real democracy: Of the 70 seats on its Legislative Council, 40 are directly elected by permanent residents of Hong Kong. The city's current President of the Legislative Council, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, is a pro-democracy figure who has spoken in support of universal suffrage and against the repression of Tiananmen Square (though he is thought to be a Communist Party member, and he spoke in favour of the heavy-handed police response to last week's protests).
2. What they're seeking already exists in much of mainland China.
While China is run by rigid one-party rule at the national level, it does allow municipal democracy – at least in the limited form being sought in Hong Kong – in many cities and even in some regional assemblies.
"By law, some 500,000 villages on the mainland elect their own village chief and members of he village council through a 'one man, one vote' system," writes Chang Ping of the South China Morning Post (which is editorially supportive of the Hong Kong democracy movement). The law actually forbids Party appointment of village committee members. This democracy extends to the lower ranks of the National People's Congress: "These include the representatives to the legislatures for districts that are not part of a municipality, counties, autonomous counties, townships, ethnic townships and towns. Not only are these deputies elected by "one man, one vote", political associations and civic groups may also nominate candidates for election."
Beijing has allowed municipal democracy to flourish, within limits, for a good reason: It is seen as preventing deeply corrupt (and therefore well-financed and potentially regime-challenging) oligarchies from taking shape. The crushing of Chongqing muncipal leader Bo Xilai in a 2012 murder trial was not just a result of his criminality, but of his very serious political challenge to Beijing. In response, Chinese officials endorsed more citizen participation in choosing municipal leaders – precisely because they feel it bolster's the party's rule.
"In other words," writes Chang Ping, "the civic nomination that Hong Kong's pan-democrats have been fighting for has long been practised in mainland elections. China has even experimented with the direct election of the heads of townships and towns."
3. Beijing has allowed this sort of thing before.
Another full-fledged Tiananmen Square uprising would surely be crushed, as violently and finally as the first one. But municipal-democracy protest movements have been permitted and sometimes even encouraged.
The outstanding example is Wukan, a large village in Guangdong, the Pearl River Delta province immediately north of Hong Kong. In 2011, Wukan's people rose up against their corrupt Communist Party administration, demanding the right to freely elect their city council. At first the protest leaders were beaten, imprisoned and tortured. And then, to the surprise of many, the Party gave in: Beijing allowed free elections to go ahead, and the protest leaders were elected to the council.
Mind you, the Wukan story does not have an entirely happy ending: The democratically elected council found itself unable to reverse the corrupt land-distribution practices that had been the original seed of protest, and many villagers turned against them.
But that example, and a few others on the mainland, do show that what Hong Kongers are marching for is not something that Beijing automatically opposes; if recent history is a guide, the Communist Party could conceivably even turn around and make a compromise or give in.
But there is one countervailing factor, and it's not a small one.
4. This is big, and could spread.
The Hong Kong protests are huge, involving hundreds of thousands of people at one time or another, and are highly visible: They are now the top story in the international media. And they have spread across the harbour to Kowloon, on the mainland portion of Hong Kong.
Under President Xi Jinping, China's leaders have become less tolerant of events and movements that might challenge China's international image and the Party's projection of omnipotence. These protests certainly are just such a risk.
As a result, protest leaders point to the change in officers in charge of the People's Liberation Army's Hong Kong garrison this summer (a supposedly more hardline, non-local general was put in charge), and rumours abound of a massing of PLA troops in nearby Shenzhen.
So it isn't necessarily another Tiananmen Square – unless Beijing decides that it is, at which point this protest will become historic in a much darker way.